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Brain Alterations Seen in Athletes
Concussions in sports, particularly football, have been receiving increased attention from both scientists and athletes. Studies have repeatedly attributed disrupted cognitive performance and general changes in the brain to concussions. A recent study, published By Dr. Rashmi Singh and colleagues, from the Laureat Institute for brain Research in Tulsa, OK, in JAMA on May 14, 2014, discusses specific changes to the hippocampus of football players.
The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is involved in memory, including cognitive and emotional processes. It has been established that the hippocampus is affected by concussions and other moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). Now, however, there is some evidence that the hippocampus is affected by mild TBI as well.
The study by Singh and colleagues shows that a college football player will have a smaller hippocampus if he has been diagnosed with a concussion than if he hasn’t been. Shockingly, even if he has never been diagnosed with a concussion, a college football player has, on average, a smaller hippocampus than a college-aged male who hasn’t played football.
To conduct this study, 50 Division I college football players and 25 college-aged males that don’t play football received MRI scans. Of the 50 football players, 25 have been diagnosed with a concussion and 25 haven’t.
The MRI scans showed that the players diagnosed with concussions had hippocampi that were 25 percent smaller than the hippocampi of the men who didn’t play football. The scans also showed that the players who weren’t diagnosed with concussions had smaller hippocampi than those of men who didn’t play football – about one-sixth smaller.
That the players without concussions had smaller hippocampi suggests that mild injuries could accumulate over time and result in damage to the hippocampus. Furthermore, even a single mild brain injury may permanently affect the brain.
Other studies have provided evidence that supports the belief that milder injuries can still damage the brain. Collegiate athletes playing contact sports had compromised white matter integrity in their hippocampi, despite never having been diagnosed with a concussion. This indicates that any mild TBI is also responsible for brain alterations, not concussions alone. Animal models have shown that repetitive mild TBI quickly leads to gliosis and neuronal death in the hippocampus.
Additionally, reaction time on tests and left hippocampal volume were correlated with years of football experience. Those who played football for longer showed slower reaction times on tests and had smaller left hippocampi.
In summary, concussions and moderate to severe traumatic brain injury are known to affect the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory. There is new evidence that mild TBI may also affect the hippocampus. The volume of the hippocampus was smaller in college football players as compared to college males who don’t play contact sports. Any type of head injury could potentially alter the brain permanently.